The Express Review
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As the air starts to turn cooler and the kids go back to school, football players of all ages, shapes, and sizes take to the field—and with another football season comes yet another football movie.

The Express is the story of Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), the first African-American football player to win the coveted Heisman Trophy.

After standing out on his high school football team, Ernie attracts the attention of Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid). Well aware that his college life won’t be easy—but assured that Coach Schwartzwalder will push him to grow as a player—Ernie chooses to attend Syracuse. There, he faces two big challenges: the challenge to overcome prejudice against African-Americans—both on and off the gridiron—and the challenge to live up to the expectation that he’s the next Jim Brown.

  
 
If you’ve seen an inspirational football movie before, you’ll know what to expect from The Express. For the most part, it’s more of the same—the story of how one man faced the challenges and overcame the odds to become a football legend. It’s sure to stir up plenty of emotions, too—from the heartbreak of Ernie’s losses to the thrill of seeing him on the field to the excitement (and even pride) as he accepts the Heisman. In fact, The Express tugged at my heartstrings much more than Nights in Rodanthe did.

But on top of the standard inspirational sports story, The Express also has that added twist of racial prejudice. It adds to the challenges that Ernie is forced to overcome—but, at the same time, it might have been pushed a little too much. Don’t get me wrong; I know that racism was a major issue at the time (and, sadly, it still is). I also don’t know what the situation was for the real Davis. But the racism in the movie is played up so much that it’ll leave white audience members feeling ashamed of the color of their skin. Just about every white person that Ernie faces—from childhood bullies to his coach and his fellow players—is shamefully racist. And the few who aren’t—like the teammates who do accept him—are downplayed.

But that’s simply an emotional tactic. Every inspirational sports movie—and, generally speaking, every drama—needs to find a way to grab its audience. So while I understand why it was done, I also think it could have been done better—by letting the main character speak for himself. In fact, making the white characters stereotypically big and dopey and ignorant sometimes takes away from the underlying message—that, in the days of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ernie Davis realized that he, too, needed to be a strong and respectable representative for his race. By showing both restraint and determination, he did just that—and that’s what’s important.

But there’s more to The Express than that one issue. The story is a bit choppy and uneven, often jumping ahead a couple of years at a time. For instance, it skips from the end of Ernie’s second year at Syracuse to the Heisman announcement, two years later. But, again, the story is powerfully emotional—and the cast plays it well. Brown does an excellent job of showing his character’s strength and conviction—and he’ll make you admire his character. Omar Benson Miller also gives a noteworthy performance as Ernie’s easy-going friend and roommate, Jack Buckley—though he’s underused in the movie’s second half.

So if you’re looking for something to do between weekend football games, The Express is still worth checking out. It doesn’t stray far from the standard sports drama fare, but it’ll still have football fans cheering in their seats.


DVD Review:
If you’re already experiencing college football withdrawal symptoms, The Express DVD release—and its football-filled extras—might help.

In addition to the old DVD standbys—three deleted scenes (focusing mostly on Ernie’s illness), a short making-of feature, and a commentary with director Gary Fleder—along with a rather fluffy five-minute feature on diversity at Syracuse University, the disc also includes a couple of additional features, which were clearly created with football fans in mind. Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis is a touching tribute that tells more of Ernie’s story—through interviews with cast members, sportscasters, and Ernie’s family, friends, and teammates. And Inside the Playbook, featuring director Gary Fleder and second unit director Allan Graf, discusses the preparation, planning, and hard work that went into making the film’s football scenes look as real as possible.

The extras aren’t nearly as extensive as I’d expected. In fact, put together, those two football-focused features are just 20 minutes long. But for viewers who want to find out a little bit more about the movie and its inspiring main character, they’re still worth checking out.

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